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20 Amazing Surrealist Movies You Need To Watch

26 August 2013 | Features, Film Lists | by David Zou

best surrealist movies

After the invention of cinema in the late 19th century, in the late 1910s and early 1920s, directors who emerged from French Impressionist Cinema, German Expressionist Cinema, Soviet Montage, Dada Cinema, Surrealist Cinema and Japanese Humanism Cinema all tried to explore the possibility of this new-born art form, and cinema reached its first golden age in history.

Surrealist cinema is a modernist approach to film theory, criticism, and production with origins in Paris in the 1920s. Related to Dada cinema, Surrealist cinema is characterized by juxtapositions, the rejection of dramatic psychology, and a frequent use of shocking imagery. Surrealism was the first literary and artistic movement to become seriously associated with cinema,though it has also been a movement largely neglected by film critics and historians.

Film surrealist like Luis Bunuel, Jean Cocteau, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jan Svankmajer and David Lynch broke all the rules and cinema conventions, they made divided movies that both challenge and entertain us. In order to keep a balance, we only selected at most 2 movies from each of these greatest surrealists.

Some of the movies on the list are not strictly surrealist cinema, you can argue they belong to the genre of sci-fi or fantasy, but the line is thin and they surely have some surrealist element in them, that’s the reason they got chosen. If you are looking for a list full of strange movies, then this is it.


20. Holy Motors

holy motors

The Movie: We follow a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar being driven around Paris in a white stretch limo by Céline (his driver and secretary), who ferries him around from one ‘appointment’ to another.

The Surrealism: Throughout the film Oscar changes his character about ten times to be different people, these include an old beggar woman, a powerful business man, a dying millionaire, a murderer, a kidnapper, a CGI snake, an angry uncle and husband to a chimp family. The film doesn’t explain what or why each of these appointments are carried out although the audience is given a few hints to form their own conclusions.


19. Being John Malkovich


The Movie: A puppeteer discovers a hidden doorway in his office, which turns out to be a portal into John Malkovich (the famous actor)’s mind. Upon entering the portal, one gets to be inside Malkovich’s mind for 15 odd minutes. As with any great discovery of this century, the ultimate question immediately arises : ‘How can we make money out of this?’ He and his co-worker promptly set out to exploit this discovery. It doesn’t take long for things to go haywire.

The Surrealism: John Malkovich enters his own portal, there everybody looks like himself and only speaks “Malkovich!”


18. Underground


The Movie: The story follows an underground weapons manufacturer in Belgrade during WWII and evolves into fairly surreal situations. A black marketeer who smuggles the weapons to partisans doesn’t mention to the workers that the war is over, and they keep producing. Years later, they break out of their underground “shelter” — only to convince themselves that the war is still going on.

The Surrealism: People lives underground and don’t know what has happened in the real world.


17. Delicatessen


The Movie: In a post-apocalyptic world, the residents of an apartment above the butcher shop receive an occasional delicacy of meat, something that is in low supply. A young man new in town falls in love with the butcher’s daughter, which causes conflicts in her family, who need the young man for other business-related purposes.

The Surrealism: All the tenants in the Delicatessen have various eccentricities, often involving food. One of the most interesting tenants is an old man who decided to harvest his own meals by turning his apartment into a swamp, via regularly running water flooding the apartment, and inhabited by frogs and snails. He has a huge pile of empty snail shells stacking up in a corner.

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  • Jesse James Hutchings

    This is an interesting list but your writers could seriously use some proofreading before publishing these lists.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Good list. I don’t know about the whole film as surrealist, but John Frankenheimer’s Seconds certainly had many surreal touches incorporated, especially the wine party scene.

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  • Vito Privitera

    “SECONDS” Thank You; you read my mind….I am so happy that Criterion has released this long-overdue & much deserved masterpiece for all its greatness. The Cinematography & its tripped-out “Twilight Zone”-like story is something to experience…Awesome performance by Rock Hudson.

    Anyway….Outstanding list here. Really great to see some of these getting the recognition they deserve (i.e. Color of Pomegranates, Weekend, Amarcord, Black Moon, Naked Lunch, Holy Mountain, etc.)

    I guess the few I could add:

    *Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) : dir. Kenneth Anger
    *Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) : dir. Kenneth Anger
    *Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) : dir. Maya Deren
    *Viva La Muerte [Long Live Death] (1971) : dir. Arrabal
    *Santa Sangre (1989) : dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky
    *Sweet Movie (1974) : dir. Dusan Makavejev
    *The Grandmother (1970) : dir. David Lynch
    *A Zed & Two Noughts (1985) : dir. Peter Greenaway
    *Arizona Dream (1993) : dir. Emir Kusturica
    *Persona (1966) : dir. Ingmar Bergman – I know this film isn’t regarded as a Surrealist film (at least compared to the rest of the genre), but I find this to be strikingly surreal throughout.
    *The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) : dir. Wojciech Has – I haven’t seen this one, but have read & heard that it’s a great surrealistic film.
    ……there’s a plethora of more, but it’s all about finding these films on your own that makes them grand:)